Thanks to Julie Andrews, everyone knows that in summer the hills of Salzburg are alive with the sound of music. Demanding divas and imperious maestri are not necessarily restricted to Austria’s spectacular semi-alpine regions however and it seems that every tiny Dorf and Gemeinde from Bregenz to Burgenland stages some kind of music festival throughout August, mostly in the open air. As the Austrian climate is regrettably much less benign than the Bahamas, such al fresco concerts come with a real risk of a calamitous Sturm, with or without Drang.

Diana Damrau © Jürgen Frank
Diana Damrau
© Jürgen Frank

There are no such concerns at Grafenegg, located about an hour’s drive from Vienna. This relative newcomer to the European festival calendar was founded only ten years ago but due to the drive and determination of its Artistic Director Rudolf Buchbinder has become a benchmark of excellence attracting leading orchestras, musicians and singers who were previously only found at Festivals such as Salzburg or Lucerne. Grafenegg’s big advantage is that if rain threatens, the whole event can easily be moved from the spectacular open-air “Wolkenturm” to the nearby spartanly modern Konzertsaal Auditorium, which has only a slightly smaller seating capacity.

Such was the case with the Mozart and Richard Strauss concert featuring powerhouse coloratura Diana Damrau, and given the soprano’s famous floaty pianissimo technique, the move was probably felicitous. Both composers had an acute understanding of the voice and many celebrated singers such as Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau or Renée Fleming switched effortlessly between opera and Lied. As a renowned  stage actress, Damrau’s move to the recital hall was not quite as convincing. Certainly she has sung a number of Strauss roles but significantly they were more Fiakermilli and Zerbinetta than Arabella or Ariadne. Similarly, her Mozart repertoire was more memorable for the vocal pyrotechnics of The Queen of the Night than the lyricism of Pamina.

This ‘coloratura goes lyric’ conundrum was especially noticeable in two Mozart arias. “L’amerò, sarò costante” from Il re pastore was impaired by a fast vibrato which marred the overall eloquence of the interpretation. Whilst the vocal colour was generally pure and there was impeccable trilling, the overall effect was rather detached and somewhat mannered.  Similarly in “Dove sono”, Damrau was disappointing. Admittedly all the requisite vocal demands were met – long, even phrases, flawless breath control, limpid tone, pristine trilling on “L’ingrato”, accurate top A’s on “cangiar” but there was something missing. It seemed more a case of finely-honed technique before intuitive interpretation.

Damrau seemed more at ease in the second half with a selection of songs by Richard Strauss. A long melismatic pianissimo phrase in Das Rosenband was beautifully delivered and a splendid crescendo in Traum durch die Dämmerung” proved she is no Waldvogel.  Damrau’s trademark floaty high pianissimi, often with ravishing diminuendi, was put to excellent use in Wiegenlied. There was filigree-fine phrasing and an ethereal conclusion to Morgen!, even if tempi tended to be slower than marked. Damrau’s lower register, especially at the opening to Winterweihe, lacked resonance and despite a valiant attempt at heroic declamation in Zueignung, the interpretation lacked majesty. An encore of Strauss’ Cäcilie showed the diva in rapturous form with a lustrous high register.

Damrau had exceptionally solicitous support from the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra led by rapidly rising maestro Tomáš Netopil. Correctly leicht und flüchtig orchestral playing distinguished Wiegenlied and there was excellent flute obbligato in Ständchen. Concertmaster Jiři Vodička’s solos were acclaimed by both audience and vocalist.

Earlier in the programme the orchestra gave a crisp and well-paced interpretation of that perennial crowd-pleaser, the overture to Le nozze di Figaro and a particularly impressive performance of the Mozart’s “Haffner” Symphony. There was spirited marcato string attack in the opening Allegro and precise, gentle trilling in the lilting Trio.

The Czechs bedazzled the audience with Strauss’ enormous orchestral showpiece Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche. Netopil’s reading revealed an intuitive and seductive sense of Straussian syncopation and dynamic oscillations. The first horn established the raucous mood with jaunty playing of the Till theme complete with a wonderfully raspy low A natural at the end. The long trilling fermata before the leitfertig 2/4 passage was almost vaudevillian and the fortissimo trombones, tuba and snaredrum rolls made the gallows theme a veritable danse macabre. Charmingly, most of the musicians were grinning cheekily throughout the performance. Obviously Till’s spirit is alive and well in Prague.

Indicative of Rudolf Buchbinder’s hands-on control of the Grafenegg Festival, and as is apparently his custom, the Director personally presented Damrau with flowers, but before the interval and not at the end of her performance. As an accomplished concert pianist perhaps he prefers Mozart to Strauss...